Friday, February 13, 2009

L.A. Calling: The Airborne Toxic Event Live in Hollywood on February 12, 2009

The Airborne Toxic Event played at the Music Box @ the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood last night. The evening was a homecoming of sorts for The Airborne Toxic Event as members of many of their fellow bands from L.A. were in attendance. The sold out crowd at the concert spanned all ages from kids to grandparents which contributed to the musical reunion vibe. Mikel Jollett, the lead singer and writer, in his drive to connect with the audience, reminded me of a young Bono or Springsteen blended with the bittersweet romantic yearnings of Smiths era Morrissey. Mikkel has a gripping but sweetly humble stage presence that projects power but not swagger. Guitarist Steven Chen lays down a sonic field that gives air and space for Jollett's searching soul to roam. Chen's guitar opens up ambient washes as well as chiming lines that bring to mind the Australian band The Church and the vast spaces found in their song Under the Milky Way. But even with the lyrical guitar and all the strings on stage as Chen told Scott Timberg of the Los Angeles Times that he "always loved it when you take something really clean and proper sounding and dirty it up a little bit.” There is grit in the music as well as haunting desperation in the vocals.

Wishing Well

Lead singer, Mikel Jollett is as much a writer as a musician and I think this is what gives the band such great possibilities and at times can drive some critics to write poison pen letters to the band in place of honest reviews. The painter RB Kitaj faced similar antagonism when he dared to present his writing as on a par with his paintings.

R.B. Kitaj
Los Angeles No. 22
36 x 36 oil on canvas 2002

The longing and loss found at the end of a relationship or the end of a life is a shared human condition that artists strive to get down on paper, or canvas or in song. But, that strange mix of dread, fear, anger, resistance and ultimately letting go can prove elusive or even bathetic in an artistic setting. RB Kitaj's late paintings of love lost work for me as do Mikel Jollett's song stories. The lyrics to the song Sometime Around Midnight are darkly evocative and well worth a read on their own:

Sometime Around Midnight

And it starts sometime around midnight, or at least that's when you lose yourself for a minute or two. As you stand under the bar lights and the band plays some song about forgetting yourself for a while. And the piano's this melancholy sound track to her smile in that white dress she's wearing, you haven't seen her for a while.

But you know that she's watching. She's laughing, she's turning. She's holding her tonic like a cross.
The room suddenly spinning she walks up and asks how you are. So you can smell her perfume. You can see her lying naked in your arms.

And so there's a change in your emotions and all of these memories come rushing like feral waves to your mind: of the curl of your bodies like two perfect circles entwined.

And you feel hopeless, and homeless and lost in the haze of the wine.

Then she leaves with someone you don't know. But she makes sure you saw her she looks right at you and bolts, as she walks out the door, your blood boiling, your stomach in ropes.

And your friends say "What is it? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Then you walk under the streetlights. And you're too drunk to notice that everyone is staring at you.
You just don't care what you look like, the world is falling around you.

You just have to see her
You know that she'll break you in two.

On stage last night the song was riveting. Couples danced, wrapped tightly together in the packed crowd as if this could be their own swan song.

Sometime Around Midnight

The Airborne Toxic Event is at the cusp of stardom and at times Mikel seemed apologetic for their recent success, thanking the audience at numerous times for being there - almost as if he needed to remind himself where he was now and how much he and the band had gone through and how far they still have to travel. Near the end of the night Mikel slipped through the throng pressing up against the stage and climbed up onto a side ledge in full voice while violist Anna Bulbrook was held aloft by the crowd. Mikel invited those lining the stage to join the band for their finale of Missy. The first lines of the song are: "Missy got off the bus one day in a crowded depot in downtown L.A. She looked around as if to say: "I'm home." The band was home for one night only then off to San Francisco the next and on up to the Northwest as the current tour continues. But for that moment as the audience joined the band and danced onstage Mikel's vision of Los Angeles held sway. As he told Molly Bergen, "I love that it’s ... all of these cultures rammed up against each other. People who don't live here think LA is Hollywood. But there are 14 million people here from somewhere else: Salvadorian, Ethiopian, Korean, Armenian...we're just one giant civil stew. "

Echo Park (New Song - First Time Played in Los Angeles)
*These clips by okeastron2008 provide a brief intro to the band and the inspired performance.

More at:
TATE'S website
TATE on LAist


1. Paul Debraski writing about McSweeney's Issue #27 describes Mikel Jollett's short story in the issue:

"The story concerns a giant crack in the road of a major street of Los Feliz. The foursome gather their spelunking gear (so to speak) and decide to investigate this gigantic crack/sinkhole. As they dive in and discover a gigantic expanse of darkness, they become, obviously, very intrigued. Eventually some neuroses come to light. And, as they proceed further into the cave, they see some extraordinary things."

2. Molly Bergen in the LAist asked Mikel about the band's name:

I read that you took your name from the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the work, what is that referring to?

In the novel The Airborne Toxic Event is a big cloud that is a result of a giant chemical explosion The huge poisonous cloud threatens a nearby town. The hero, Jack, gets exposed to it. He’s told by the doctors that he’s going to die. When he asks when the doctor says, "You may live a week you may live 40 years." Which is really unhelpful because that is true for everyone. The Airborne Toxic Event his fear of death. It changes him in these really important ways. The same thing happened to me in that year I formed the band with my mom dying and my own health problems.

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